Theater

Larry David’s Fish in the Dark Is Schlock Therapy

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You have to supply your own laugh track at Fish in the Dark, comedian Larry David’s first Broadway foray. But that’s just about the only thing different from watching David’s work for TV. Boppy xylophone jazz with doobie-doo scatting vocals announces a silly hour right at the start. Video projections show a State of California death certificate, but with typewritten letters falling off — wacky! (This sequence
repeats during each of the many long scene changes throughout the evening, like a recurring pep rally for the comedy.)

With a rompy script, cardboard acting, and a steady dole of one-liners, Fish in the Dark amounts to a sitcom mounted for the live stage. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Fans of Seinfeld (which David co-created) or Curb Your Enthusiasm (which he wrote and starred in) will find everything familiar here — and that’s the point, starting with the evening’s appealingly neurotic star, whose character seems indistinguishable from David’s small-screen persona.

Here the aloof guy with the receded hairline is Norman Drexel, a fretful but wisecracking executive at a urinal manufacturer who gets summoned to his
father’s deathbed with his equally smart-mouthed extended family. For his dying wish, Sidney Drexel (Jerry Adler) calls for one of his grown sons to take into his own home their caustic, overbearing mother, Gloria (Jayne Houdyshell). But wait — which brother was Sidney looking at when he said that? And how should these anxiety-prone survivors handle the household secrets that suddenly come to light when Dad has gone?

From this durable comic scenario, spun from the ancient yarns of commedia dell’arte, David works his trademark blend of hand-wringing, eccentric hangups, and sarcastic cracks. Should you tip the doctor? Is calling someone a “dickhead” worse than, or just equivalent to, slanders referring to women’s anatomies? Would the closed-fisted Gandhi approve of fist-bumps? And, Norman wonders, amid family rancor, “Why is it that after someone dies, everyone decides to become honest?”

Fish in the Dark gestures gamely
at comic tradition when Diego (Jake
Cannavale) dons an elaborate disguise
to influence Gloria. But so many other
elements give this show a studio-
manufactured rhythm and feel: The canned musical interludes work like
frequent commercial breaks. Family
conflicts remain charmingly but harmlessly dysfunctional.

David’s timing is crisp and the writing is often funny. His dry delivery and physical confidence wavers in live performance — noticeable because he’s surrounded, mostly, by stage vets. But it all works
because Norman wears his awkwardness with pride. Director Anna D. Shapiro
traffic-cops the oddly large cast around a series of generically affluent interiors that add to the camera-ready vibe.

David has bloated the script with
minor characters too numerous to track — most of them pencil-thin and unnecessary. (The charismatic Rosie Perez goes particularly underused as the aggrieved housekeeper Fabiana, who could have functioned more fully as a foil.) Still, this retro lark can be as amusing as it is air-brained. With its zingers and cynicism, it brings to mind an American boulevard comedy from the first half of the twentieth century — which, ironically, was one of the sources for television when theater makers migrated there. Varnished with David’s contemporary wit, Fish in the Dark is schlock, but of the appealing, clever kind. It hits every loopy note an episode of your favorite comedy should.